When Nebraska lost their Heisman trophy candidate at running back early on Saturday, it relied on an old formula to carry them to victory over Purdue–a strong running game plus a stingy and opportunistic defense.
Despite a left knee injury to Ameer Abdullah, 15th-ranked Nebraska was largely able to cruise to a 35-14 victory on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, although the Huskers led the Boilermakers make it interesting in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t until Terrell Newby’s 7-yard touchdown run with 2:00 to play that sealed the deal and sent the Huskers to 8-1 on the season and 4-1 in Big Ten play.
“There were some good things and some things we’ve got to get better at. Looking forward to the bye week to keep this football team working,” head coach Bo Pelini said of his team’s win. “Excited to be 8-1 at this point, but we understand that we have a lot to do to finish it off the way we want to finish it off.”
Nebraska came out of the chute red-hot, stuffing Purdue and forcing a three-and-out on the game’s first series and then blocking a punt to set up its offense with a short field. Kieron Williams fired through the Purdue line and blocked Thomas Meadows’ punt to give Nebraska the ball at the Boilermakers’ 17. Two plays later, Tommy Armstrong found De’Mornay Pierson-El for a 17-yard touchdown pass and Nebraska took the 7-0 lead. However, the Huskers should have had more as their dominance continued on defense with golden opportunities not taken advantage of.
Purdue was again forced to punt after three unsuccessful plays on its next possession, with Pierson-El returning a Meadows punt 42 yards to the Purdue 16. Facing a 1st-and-goal from the Purdue 4-yard line, the Huskers were unable to find the end zone with the fourth down play proving to be most costly. At 4th-and-1 on the Purdue 1, Armstrong took a shotgun snap but bobbled it, with Abdullah scooping up the fumble and attempting to score. Abdullah was stopped short of the goal line and hobbled off the field with a left knee injury, as Purdue took over on downs. Drew Brown would then misfire on a 46-yard field goal attempt on Nebraska’s next possession, which started deep in Boilermaker territory at the Purdue 31.
As for Abdullah’s status, Pelini said it’s time to wait and do more testing, but that he’s hopeful for his quick return.
“I think Ameer just has a mild sprain and a little bruise on the side where he got hit,” Pelini said of Abdullah’s prognosis. “We’re very optimistic there. He already had an MRI and we feel good about where that is.”
Purdue would tie the game at 7-7 on quarterback Austin Appleby’s 25-yard touchdown run with 11:48 to play in the first half. Despite Abdullah’s absence, Nebraska answered with a 2-yard touchdown run by Imani Cross and then a 29-yard touchdown run by Armstrong to put the Huskers ahead 21-7 at halftime. Cross would carry 20 times for 66 yards and two touchdowns, while Armstrong had 13 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown to go along with an 8-for-21 passing day for 118 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.
Overall, it was a sloppy performance in the words of Pelini and one that needs to improve before the Huskers settle in for their final three games of the season–at Wisconsin, home against Minnesota, and at Iowa.
“At the end of the day, we were sloppy at times. We did some good things, but we’ve got to keep improving,” Pelini said of the offense.
“That’s what the next two weeks is about for us.”
Nebraska did frustrate Purdue’s offense for most of the game, which entered having posted three-straight 30-plus point efforts in a win over Illinois and losses to Michigan State and Minnesota. The freshman quarterback Appleby was just 18-of-46 for 216 yards and one touchdown, to go along with two interceptions of his own.
“That’s a great defense, they made plays. That’s a really good team we just played and hats off to them for sure,” Appleby said of the Blackshirts.
“They’re a great defense and they did a good job of covering our receivers.”
That sentiment was echoed by Pelini, who felt the secondary and front four held their own and dominated at times against the Boilermakers.
“We looked really good on the secondary. Really challenged their receivers and made a lot of plays,” Pelini noted. “They were 18-of-46 throwing the football, I think that’s a pretty good day in the secondary.”
Nebraska also limited Purdue to just 124 yards rushing on 32 carries, or 3.9 yards per carry. Purdue was able to outgain Nebraska 340-297 in total offense, as the Huskers total output was their lowest in a win since a 13-7 victory over Iowa in 2012, which saw them roll up only 263 yards of total offense.
As for their next opponent, Wisconsin, the Huskers know they have a big game on the horizon.
“We’ve got a heckuva challenge ahead of us in the next couple of weeks, as with the other two opponents we have coming up,” Pelini said of the Wisconsin game. “You just have to keep getting better. There’s still a long way to go for us.”
With their 35-14 win over Purdue, the Huskers are 8-1 overall and 4-1 in Big Ten play, a half-game ahead of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa in the West division standings. The Badgers blanked Rutgers 37-0 on Saturday, while the Gophers were idle and the Hawkeyes roughed up Northwestern 48-7. Nebraska controls its own destiny and a possible return to Indianapolis, but they’ll have to earn it over their next three games. And after Saturday’s effort and execution against Purdue, the Huskers themselves know they’ll need to be better in both areas if they want that West division title.